As some of you might know or remember, I have been considering the purchase of a firearm for some time. Two posts ago I mentioned it while talking about being victim of a robbery, and reader Tyler Karaszewski wrote a cogent and passionate comment that began, “I think it’s sad that so many of our responses to these sorts of events are to (quite literally) begin escalating an arms race.”

My following post was about securing property, and while I purposefully didn’t mention firearms, reader Mark commented, “Protecting stuff is important. Protecting your life, more so. A good pistol or home defense shotgun will handle those protection needs.”

And then we all heard the tragic news from last week.

Mind you, I think a big part of the problem with mass murder in America lies with how our country treats the mentally ill — a public health problem that needs immediate addressing. Mental illness aside, the Internet has heated up in recent days with a furious debate about guns and gun ownership.

This is a personal finance blog, not a politics blog, so I am not trying to discuss gun politics.  The question I am trying to address, in the middle of this madness, is if a firearm purchase makes sense. Please note: this is a question or series of questions, not an answer. I don’t have all the answers, and I’d really welcome your feedback on this question.

Where I stand

I’m a gun agnostic — I’m neither pro nor con guns at this juncture in my life. I have considered this purchase as a kind of emergency preparedness, but I am still not certain if it would address my needs.

I’ll admit that being robbed has made me afraid of crime in general, and I’m having a hard time trusting people. I hate that. I am not delusional or paranoid, and I don’t live in expectation of the zombie apocalypse. I have tried to respond to my situation constructively, but trauma has its consequences. Trauma hardens people and makes them overreact. So, how much caution is too much caution? When does caution begin to squelch the life it’s trying to protect?

Perverse results

A perverse result is a type of unintended consequence that produces the opposite result than it was originally intended with a purposeful action. For example, rent control is supposed to help low-income people by keeping rent affordable, but the result is reduced quality and quantity of housing overall. If you don’t believe me, try finding an affordable, well-kept apartment in Manhattan.

Regarding guns for home defense, the potential for perverse results is evident. First, if a criminal knows you keep guns at home, that makes your home a more attractive target while you are away because illegal guns have a high street value. Second, perverse results may arise from misuse.

The mother of the Newtown gunman reportedly collected guns in order to “prepare for the worst,” which she expected to be a social collapse as a result of a financial meltdown. And then the worst happened — the social order didn’t break down, but her mentally ill son got access to her gun collection, shot her and went on a killing rampage.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

I am not saying that perverse results are the scenario for every gun owner.

There are over 300 million guns in use in the United States, and something between 40 to 45 percent of households have at least one gun. That’s the highest per-capita gun ownership in the world. Far and wide, most gun owners are serious responsible people. Still, we have a lot of gun-related crime.

Last year in the U.S. there were 8,583 murders with a firearm, out of 12,664 total murders. That’s a lot of murders no matter how you slice it. Even when you account for population, the U.S. murder rate is pretty high, about 4.4 per 100,000 people in 2009, slightly higher than Yemen at 4.2. Germany had 0.9 and Japan 0.4. You can do your own comparisons here.

At the same time, though, there are surveys that estimate anything from 100,000 to 2.5 million defensive uses of guns each year. By that account, guns would seem to have an overall positive effect: Hundreds of thousands of life-saving incidents beat 30,000 gun-related deaths, yes? (I’m adding the 8,583 murders plus the over-50 percent suicides in gun-related deaths).

However, the Harvard School of Public Health refutes the claims of self-defense and suggests that guns “are used far more often to frighten and intimidate than they are used in self-defense.” What this seems to mean is that the people who report self-defense scenarios are actually not engaging in self-defense but something else.

The strange contradiction, however, is that contrary to international comparisons, within the U.S., the states with more gun restrictions seem to have the highest crime rates. I don’t know how to explain this. I could speculate that it’s safest when nobody has weapons, but once you open the door to guns it’s safest when everyone is armed — it’s like the mutually assured destruction theory that (so far) has prevented nuclear war. But that’s just speculation, and I have no proof.

Supply, demand, and consumerism

Let’s face it, we live in a culture of excess. J.D. wrote in one of his last posts here about how retailers manipulate consumers.

While there may be a case for gun ownership for self-defense, the recent crime in Connecticut seems to stem from overdoing things: The mother of the Newtown shooter had two semi-automatic pistols, a shotgun, and a semi-automatic assault rifle. Perhaps it’s not my or anybody’s place to say what’s enough for me and you and everyone we know, but I have to ask: Who needs an assault rifle for self-defense, besides the armed guards who protect nuclear reactors?

Guns are big business. There are cheap guns out there, but a good handgun will cost you anything upwards of $500. That’s not counting ammunition, storage and locks, range memberships, classes, accessories, and more. My own research zeroed in on a .357 Magnum revolver that sells for $700 new. Adding up accessories, training, and the like, I would easily accrue upwards of $2,000 in gun expenses.

Add up all 300,000,000 guns in circulation, give them an average value of $500 each, that’s $150 billion dollars. There are about 8 million guns produced each year, with Americans buying 4.5 million. And the more we fear each other, the more guns we buy. While gun ownership in general is in decline, gun owners are acquiring more weapons. That’s a lot of incentive to induce people to prepare for the apocalypse.

My conclusions

By their very nature, guns raise the stakes of any human interaction; a domestic dispute becomes a murder, or a mugging where you stand to lose your wallet becomes a shootout where you stand to lose your life. At the same time, studies show that the majority of recent mass murders have occurred in places where guns were banned, which rendered the victims defenseless. And if that’s true, then that’s another kind of perverse result.

Frankly, I don’t know how to balance these two notions in my own life.

At this point, it seems to me that guns are a high-risk purchase that might increase my family’s risk of death rather than reduce it. Yes, guns may save you in some scenarios, but they might also end up hurting you or your loved ones. Which one is more likely? I can’t make enough sense of the figures to establish a risk/reward ratio, and in doubt, I abstain.

What’s your take? Does gun ownership make sense to you in your circumstances? Have you ever been in a situation where guns have either protected you or endangered you? While the Internet is aflame with heated discussions, I trust that GRS readers will honor their customary good sense in this debate.

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